Roundup: Looking to punish a maverick

One Liberal MP broke ranks from and voted for the Conservatives’ Supply Day motion on extending the consultation period on the tax changes, and the media has spent the day salivating over it, and as has become usual, is playing the role of party whip better than the party whip himself. Because drama!

Said MP, Wayne Long, conspicuously made himself absent from national caucus yesterday morning, and made himself available to media, so it’s clear that he’s being a maverick and pushing his luck rather than keeping his head down and falling into line, but at the same time, I wonder if the fact that the media makes a Big Deal of these kinds of incidents just amplifies what he did (which shouldn’t be a big deal given that it wasn’t a confidence vote), but was simply a rather performative protest motion by the Conservatives as part of their campaign to sow confusion into the tax discussion. But my concern is that when the media goes out of their way to make a Big Deal out of this issue, chasing the whip across the Foyer to his office trying to get him to give a juicy comment about the whole thing, I fear that it sets up these public expectations that MPs who don’t always toe the party line should be ousted. We saw this in Manitoba over Steven Fletcher’s vote against his party on an issue that wasn’t one of confidence, but it was the media who kept reiterating the message that he should be thrown out of caucus, until the caucus did just that. It’s so very damaging to what we want out of our democracy, and for all that the pundit class protests that we want MPs to exercise more independence, We The Media are always the first to pounce when they don’t.

On a similar note, Kady O’Malley thinks we should stop calling it “embarrassing climb downs” when governments listen to criticism and make amendments to their bills and proposals. And like the salivating that happens when MPs break ranks, this too is always the narrative that crops up when governments respond to complaints and move to make changes to improve what’s on offer. It’s how democracy should work, and yet We The Media keeps reinforcing this message that listening and adapting is a bad thing. I have to wonder if we’re really our own worst enemies sometimes.

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Roundup: No more gimmicky rules

In her latest installment of her occasional “Dear Process Nerd” column series, Kady O’Malley takes on the subject of heckling, and offers a sympathetic answer about the frustration of MPs who can’t get a word in edgewise given the way in which debates and QP are structured to all but discourage actual debate. And she’s right – that is a very serious problem that we should address. The problem? The solutions that she offered were not solutions.

As is so often the case with people who are looking to reform the system to improve the obvious deficiencies, the instinct is always to implement some new gimmick, and my learned friend is no different in this regard. In this case, O’Malley notes that we should give MPs more time to meaningfully engage with legislation (go on…) but decides that the answer lies in rejigging the daily schedule for un-structured, open-interaction with things like quizzing specific ministers on subjects or Urgent Questions.

And this is the part where I heave a great sigh, because my learned friend as completely missed the mark.

When you identify a problem, you shouldn’t go looking for a new gimmick to try and counterbalance it – you should go looking for the source of the problem and solve it there. In this case, it’s the way in which we started regulating speaking times in Canada so that when we imposed maximum speaking times, we incentivised MPs to use up that whole time. That meant speeches that went up to 40 minutes, then twenty, and the ten minutes allotted for questions and comments wound up being just as rote and scripted more often than not because MPs no longer know how to debate. So why not just tackle that problem instead? Restore the old rules – abolish speaking times and speaking lists, have the Speaker gauge how long MPs should have to speak to a bill or motion based on the number of MPs who want to speak to it, and allow for interruptions for questions in a free-flowing manner, and above all, ban scripts so that MPs will be engaged in the subject matter, talking for probably eight to ten minutes, ensure that there is free-flowing debate throughout, and most of all, it eliminates the impetus to read speeches into the record. Just tacking on new rules and gimmicks has made the situation worse over the years. Strip that away. Get us back to the fundamentals. That will help bring about actual change.

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QP: What about Morneau-Shapell?

With it being Wednesday and with the PM out to town, there were a few more empty desks in the Commons, but QP rolled along regardless. Andrew Scheer led off, returning again to the proposed tax changes as an attack on “local businesses.” Jim Carr stood up to instead note that the opposition has been so concerned with women entrepreneurs, then how could they contenance the statements by Gerry Ritz in calling the environment minister “Climate Barbie.” Andrew Scheer didn’t respond, and stuck to his script, and so Carr stood up again, to again demand that the comments be denounced. Scheer again hewed to his script on “local businesses,” and Carr again expressed his disappointment and his expectation of a retraction. Onto Alain Rayes, who read the “local businesses” scripts in French, and this time, Bill Morneau stood up to reiterate that they were trying to make the system fairer for the middle class. They went another round of the same, before Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, railing that the PM left the door open to ballistic missile defence. Harjit Sajjan said that they were working actively with the US on NORAD modernisation, but the policy had not changed. Mulcair asked again in French, and Marc Garneau took this one, offering much the same response. Nathan Cullen was up next to rail about tax loopholes, and Diane Lebouthillier assured him they were going after tax avoidance. Alexandre Boulerice asked the same in French, and Bill Morneau gave his pat response on tax fairness.

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Roundup: Neglecting a vital institution

Of the things that vex me about our current government, their tacit endorsement of republican sentiment in this country is high on my list. The fact that they have allowed the Conservatives to take up and politicise the monarchist space in the Canadian landscape is shameful, and the fact that they have allowed the position of Canadian Secretary to the Queen to lapse is just one more sign of this particular antipathy. For all that he professes his affection for Her Majesty, Justin Trudeau seems to have a pretty difficult time reflecting that in his government’s particular decisions, and we will pay the price for it. That the work of arranging royal tours and being the link to Buckingham Palace is being left to the bureaucrats in Canadian Heritage is not a good thing. Everything I have heard about the job they do is not only that they are plagued with incompetence when it comes to the actual work of dealing with the Canadian Monarchy, but the tacit acknowledgement of my sources that those very bureaucrats charged with the responsibility are themselves republicans is hugely problematic. That they are the ones offering advice to the government is a very big problem. And that Trudeau appears to be neglecting this very important relationship is worrying. I know that there are monarchist Liberals in the ranks, and I hope very much that they can start to raise a fuss about this, because it’s a very worrying road that we are now on, and this kind of neglect can do lasting damage to our most fundamental institution, which we should all be very concerned about.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had an exit interview with Governor General David Johnston, and brought up the issue of debating abolishing the monarchy. Johnston, bless him, pointed out that the countries that most satisfy the needs of their people tend to be constitutional monarchies, so we’ve got that going for us.

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Roundup: Arnold Chan and his parliamentary legacy

News was delivered yesterday morning that Liberal MP Arnold Chan has succumbed to cancer and passed away earlier that morning. The news is a blow for Parliament, as Chan was a very decent and well-liked MP who was serious about the dignity of the institution. Back in June, he delivered a speech in Parliament that was viewed at the time as a bit of a farewell (which he insisted that it wasn’t), in which he implored that his fellow MPs not only demonstrate their love of Parliament, but that they demonstrate it by doing things like ending the reliance on talking points.

At the time that Chan made the speech, I wrote a column about its importance, and why more MPs should heed his words. Scripts and talking points have been suffocating our parliament and our very democracy, and it gets worse as time goes on. That Chan could see their inherent problems and try to break the cycle is encouraging, because it hopefully means that other MPs will too. It’s one of the reasons why I hope that as part of honouring Chan’s legacy, MPs will work to do away with the rules in the Commons that have led to the rise of canned speeches, and that we can get to a place where debate is no longer a series of speeches read into the record without actual exchanges, and where MPs actually become engaged in the material rather than just reading the points that their leaders’ offices handed their assistants to write up for them. Parliament should be more than that, and let’s hope that others follow Chan’s lead.

Here are some more remembrances of Chan by his colleagues.

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Roundup: Mike Duffy, white knight

Oh, Senator Mike Duffy. For his suffering, he has decided to launch a $7.8 million lawsuit against the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Senate itself. It’s not just about the two years of suspension without pay, or the reimbursement or legal fees, or indeed about the further clawbacks of his salary that the Senate undertook for his abuse of expense claims, or about the lost income from speaking fees that he could have claimed had he not been dragged through the process. No, Duffy is so concerned about the lack of Charter rights for those who work on the Hill that he’s willing to take on this multi-million-dollar lawsuit for the principle of the matter.

Such a hero.

Now, I will be the first to admit that yes, the way in which Duffy’s suspension handled was hugely problematic, and that his rights to due process were trampled on because of political expediency, it cannot be argued that the Senate was illegitimate in the way it acted because as a self-governing parliamentary body, the Senate not only has the ability to police its own, it is in fact the only body that can police its members because of parliamentary privilege and institutional independence.

While Duffy’s lawyer was effusive in his characterisation of Duffy’s acquittal, I’m not sure that it completely passes the smell test – Duffy was found not to have met the criminal test for fraud and breach of trust, but you cannot say that no rules were broken. The Senate has pointed to numerous examples where this was the case and fined him appropriately, and while he claims that the rules were too loose and vague, that is certainly not the case with all of his rejected claims. And it will raise questions if this suit goes ahead because the judge’s ruling was indeed problematic (and I know for a fact that there are other judges on that same bench who were not keen on it), and without an appeal being raised, that could raise more questions with this trial – if it goes to trial.

Of course, we can’t deny that perhaps Duffy is looking for a settlement of a couple of million dollars, but I’m not sure that of the parties involved, the Senate would bite and go for it. They are still pretty sore about the whole thing and are keen to continue to prove that they are taking a hard line to those who abuse it. I would wager that they are more likely to fight this to the bitter end on principle, come what may.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt sees an odd parallel between Duffy and Omar Khadr in that their rights were violated (which is a bit of a stretch, legally speaking), while Christie Blatchford suggests that perhaps Duffy is indeed owed something because his rights to due process were robbed.

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Roundup: Divisions of Power at the Council

With the Council of the Federation meeting today in Edmonton, they had a pre-meeting yesterday with some Indigenous leaders – others having opted not to join because they objected to it being “segregated” from broader Council meeting. While I can certainly see their point that they want to be full partners at the table, I have to wonder if this isn’t problematic considering some of the issues that the Council has to deal with – NAFTA renegotiations, inter-provincial trade, marijuana regulations – things that don’t really concern First Nations but that premiers need to hammer out. Two groups did meet – the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (which generally deals with off-reserve and urban Indigenous Canadians) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, citing successful talks, while the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council stayed out of it.

While I’m sympathetic to these Indigenous groups’ desire to have full-fledged meetings with premiers, I’m not sure that the Council is the best place to do it, because they’re not an order of government so much as they’re sovereign organisations that have treaty relationships. While some of their concerns overlap, they don’t have the same constitutional division of powers as the provinces, so a meeting to work on those areas of governance can quickly be sidelined when meetings stay on the topics where areas do overlap with Indigenous groups, like health or child welfare, while issues like interprovincial trade or harmonizing regulations would get left at the sidelines as they’re not areas in which Indigenous governments have any particular constitutional stake. And yes, we need more formalized meetings between Indigenous leaders and premiers, I’m not sure that simply adding them to the Council achieves that, whereas having separate meetings – as was supposed to happen yesterday – would seem to be the ideal forum where they can focus on issues that concern them. Of course, I could be entirely wrong on this and missing something important, but right now, I’m struggling to see how the division of powers aligns in a meaningful way.

Oh, and BC won’t be at the Council table as NDP leader John Horgan is being sworn in as premier today, even though he could have scheduled that date earlier so that he could attend (seeing as this meeting has been planned for months).

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QP: Imagining conflicts over cocktails

Despite it being Monday, none of the leaders were in the House (save, as always, Elizabeth May), which is starting to feel like a bad old habit making a comeback. Denis Lebel led off for the Conservatives, first offering condolences for the Quebec family that died in the Ecuador earthquake, and asked for an update on Canada’s efforts. Marie-Claude Bibeau noted the support they were offering to that country. Lebel then pivoted to a demand to know which taxes the Liberals plan on raising to pay for their spending. Bill Morneau responded that they were investing as it was the right time to do so. Lebel switched to English to decry the lack of transparency, to which Morneau insisted that they were being open and transparent, and said that they only showed two years in the budget so as to show that they have work to do. Andrew Scheer bemoaned the “mean-spirited” ways in which the budget rolled back Conservative programmes like income splitting. Morneau insisted that the new measures would help more families than the old programmes. Scheer then launched into a question laden with lame sports puns, but Morneau repeated his assertions. Peter Julian decried a cocktail party that CRA officials attended along with firms like KPMG. Diane Lebouthillier noted that it was an event held by the Chartered Professional Accountants, which many employees are members of. Peter Julian tried again, ramping up the conflict of interest accusations, and got the same answer. Hélène Laverdière worried that human rights were not on the ambassador’s priority list in Saudi Arabia. Pamela Goldsmith-Jones said that Canada does not miss any opportunity to raise human rights with anyone including Saudi Arabia, nor did they miss an opportunity for positive engagement. Laverdière asked again in French, and Goldsmith-Jones reminded the NDP that they supported the LAV sales as well.

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Roundup: Niqab politics taking over

The politics of the niqab have slowly starting taking up a lot of oxygen on the election campaign, on a number of fronts. While people over the Twitter Machine tried to skew Harper’s “old stock Canadians” remark as some kind of racist or dog whistle politics (I’m not sure that interpretation makes sense given the context of what he was saying), the government has decided to crank their petulance around the attempted niqab ban up to eleven by declaring that they will ask the courts for a stay of the Federal Court of Appeal ruling on the niqab-at-citizenship-ceremonies case, essentially to deny the woman in question the right to vote. It’s going to be tough for them to convince the courts that there is some imminent danger if they allow her to take the oath before October 19th, much less convince the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the case (and they almost certainly won’t, seeing as this is a fairly open-and-shut case of administrative law, where the minister overreached is authority to implement the ban). But while this pettiness digs in, the panic over the niqab has already begun to spread, with the Bloc launching an attack ad to warn that the NDP will mean pipelines and niqabs in Quebec, while an NDP candidate has stated that while Thomas Mulcair reopens the constitution to try and abolish the Senate (never going to happen), that he deal with the menace of niqabs at the same time. No, seriously. He added that he’s sure the party supports him on that, and as of posting time, the party has not repudiated the statement (much as they did not really repudiate it when Alexandre Boulerice made similar statements about banning niqabs earlier). Justin Trudeau, for his part, said he wouldn’t try to appeal the ban to the Supreme Court. So there’s that. Meanwhile, Tabatha Southey takes on the government’s attempted niqab ban, with her usual acid wit.

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Roundup: NATO spending commitments

As that NATO summit gets set to get underway in Wales, it looks like the face-saving final communiqué will state that the 2 percent of GDP on defence spending that they hope members will achieve will simply be “aspirational,” since it’s not going to happen with some members like Canada (which would essentially doubling our current defence budget). Stephen Saideman explores why it’s wrong for NATO to focus solely on the spending levels of member countries than it is on capabilities. It also sounds like NATO members are going to discuss making cyberwarfare as much of a threat to member nations as bombs, which is quite true of the modern era. It also sounds like the attention will be split between the threats posed by Russia and ISIS. Michael Den Tandt notes that while Harper keeps sounding tough, there is no escaping that the Canadian Forces are badly under-resourced – possibly as bad as the “Decade of Darkness” – and we can’t have it both ways of doing good work on the cheap. Katie Englehart has more on the broader context of the situation here.

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